Back in 1996, the opening moments of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting were like a blast of adrenaline. As the caffeinated drumbeat of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” cranked on the soundtrack, Ewan McGregor’s skinhead wastrel Renton and his Scottish junkie pals raced on foot from the police. Boyle never allowed that furious pace to slacken. His drug epic gave the audience a contact high. Two decades later, T2 Trainspotting kicks off with a cheeky little in-joke. McGregor’s Renton is still running. But this time, his hair is longer, his body is a little thicker, and he’s not fleeing the cops. He’s on a treadmill at the gym, trying to stay a step ahead of middle age. It’s depressing in a way, but even more depressing is the fact that he’s the mate who’s handling full-on adulthood the best! Robert Carlyle’s hothead psycho Begbie is behind bars, Jonny Lee Miller’s Sick Boy is running his family’s down-at-the-heels pub and a sideline sex-extortion racket, and Ewen Bremner’s perfectly named Spud is still shooting smack and flirting with suicide.
Boyle’s Trainspotting remains one of the most important movies of the ’90s — an electric gutter-punk dirge that appeared during a decade of seismic indie-flick game changers. On one hand, it makes perfect sense to want to pay another visit to the seedy side of Edinburgh and check up on Irvine Welsh’s charming lowlifes. On the other hand, what’s the best that can honestly come of that? Nostalgia is a double-edged sword that can cut you either way.
The good news is that the film’s four lead actors all slip seamlessly back into their onscreen alter egos as if they’ve been keeping tabs on them all these years. Boyle, too, taps right back into the first film’s signature kaleidoscopic surrealism. But it turns out we’re a lot happier to see them than they are to see one another. Begbie, Sick Boy, and Spud are still furious that Renton betrayed them and made off with their drug money two decades ago. Some turn out to be more forgiving than others, especially when they hatch a scheme to become partners in crime again (along with Sick Boy’s Bulgarian girlfriend). And why wouldn’t they be? They don’t have anything to lose.
Returning writer John Hodge’s script doesn’t try to overreach. In fact, it’s pretty anemic, especially in the less-than-satisfying final third. But your enjoyment of T2 may have less to do with the new story than the chance to relive the old one. Near the sequel’s ending, McGregor’s Renton is being chased by Begbie through a parking lot. He almost gets run down by a car. Huffing and puffing, he stares down the driver with that same sick smile and half-mad look in his eye that he had at the beginning of the first Trainspotting. For a second, it’s 1996 again. I got goose bumps.